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The medium is still the message – sort of. Text vs. email study shows users infer different information from different forms of communication.

February 11, 2019

Toronto – If you really want to grab somebody’s attention, should you text them or send them an email?

A recent study by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management confirmed that people interpret the two kinds of messages differently. Recipients considered the same message delivered by electronic text to be happening closer in time, space and to be more likely to occur than when they received it by email. That’s because texts were generally considered to have a greater sense of urgency. The study “carries (Marshall) McLuhan’s torch into the 21st century,” write authors Alex Kaju and Sam Maglio, referring to the Canadian philosopher who coined the phrase, “the medium is the message,” in the 1960s. 

Dr. McLuhan contended that the means used to convey a message is part of the message itself. But the study’s authors argue it is the judgments people make based on the assumptions and expectations they have for particular media – norms that can shift over time, especially as technology changes – that shape the message they ultimately receive.

“We’re less interested in the technology being used than what the norms about the technology infer through it. In this case, it’s the urgency norm that’s the message here,” says Mr. Kaju, a Rotman doctoral candidate in consumer behaviour. Prof. Maglio, his co-author, is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough, who is also cross-appointed to the Rotman School. 

The researchers tested their hypotheses through experimental scenarios using messages such as when a delayed pizza would be delivered, how close a food truck was, and a discount offer on a gym membership. The same message was relayed through both texts and emails in each scenario, yet recipients considered the text-based messages to be more immediate than those in emails in terms of when something was happening, where it was happening and its likelihood of occurring. 

Mr. Kaju based the food truck experiment on a real-life experience, when he received an app-based notification on his mobile phone that said a certain food truck was in his area. He realized the truck wasn’t around the corner after walking a half-hour to find it. But he was impressed that the way he received the message caused him to infer the truck was closer than it was.

“Technological media bring with them certain judgments about the data that they contain,” he says, and “the norms associated with any given media are the first place to look when trying to understand how your judgment will be influenced.”

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Ken McGuffin
Manager, Media Relations
Rotman School of Management
University of Toronto
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